Over the years I’ve had the privilege of being involved in some fantastic teams, sometimes in a leadership role, sometimes a advisor helping form a great team and in others as a team member. These teams have been engaged in pursuing objectives in sport, from International Rugby to Motorcycle racing and rally driving, through to high performing teams in business. Over the last few years I’ve enjoyed being part of dive teams, particularly in technical diving.

People often talk about teamwork as if it’s a given, that is gather a group of people and with a little desire and intent they will form a team. It’s a dangerous assumption. High performing teams have very defined characteristics, they operate in a very distinctive way and they have many different cultures, values and styles, there is not a “one size fits all” way of creating a team.

There is also a significant difference between a team we would consider cohesive and a team that is co-operating. I don’t mention dysfunctional teams as they are pretty easy to identify and frankly are therefore not a team but just a group of people arguing and pulling in different directions. Co-operative teams are interesting to discuss though. Here we have a group who work well, who “get along” often suborning personal beliefs and desires for the team good. What’s wrong with that I hear? Well, this team tends to follow one leader or gets behind the first credible idea without really buying into it, without having really examined alternatives, without having challenged the thinking of the idea creator. In order to avoid intra team conflict they hold back their own ideas and desires and often are not fully committed to the ideas execution. These teams can operate well, but it does create frustrations within the team members, which at some point, will surface and fracture the teams effort and motivation – usually when the soft and smelly hits the round and whirly.

In contrast cohesive teams actively encourage the arguments, discussions and deconstruction of ideas that leads to all feeling they have contributed and therefore are invested in the teams activities. Personal beliefs and desires are never suborned for the benefit of the team as clearly if this has to happen the team composition is wrong and there is no role for the person expected to act and deliver against their desires. Cohesive teams perform consistently at a high level, whereas co-operative teams struggle to reach both high performance levels and certainly are inconsistent.

This week I’ve been diving with some GUE divers on some deep Croatian wrecks. GUE is very focussed on the team ethos and I’ve had to adapt my more independently minded approach to deep tech diving. It’s been a different but pleasurable experience. Just because I’m used to a team approach with different values doesn’t mean I can’t contribute effectively to another team culture, what’s important to allow me to do that is to understand the culture and the expectations the team has of me within it, I need clarity.

This clarity is what, in my opinion, (and in a fair bit of elite sports research) allows us to identify the key elements of a high performing team. These elements can easily be set in a variety of cultures and adapt to a variety of appropriate leadership styles. So what are the elements.

Clarity of Purpose. This is the most important element and the purpose cannot be doing whatever the leader tells them. Each team member must understand what the team want to achieve, must believe in the possibility of success and be motivated and excited to play a role in achieving that success. There should be no doubt in the teams mind what that clarity of purpose is and they should be able to articulate it clearly and succinctly.
Clarity of member and leadership roles. It doesn’t matter what your role is, what is important that both you as leader and team member as well as ALL the other team members and leaders understand that role (s). The role will probably be related to particular skills and/or experience, but should also be related to the more team oriented needs, is your role to challenge through innovation, through analysis or through practicality. For example one board I work with has the Chief Financial Officer challenge everything not just from a numbers perspective but also looks at things not normally within the CFO role but where his analytical thinking can challenge and add value.
Clarity of understanding of the power distribution in the team. As we are not living in a utopian society and most teams have some sort of formal or informal hierarchy we cannot just wish this away. There is a distribution of power and influence in teams, this can be based on organisational position, ability, experience etc. it must be understood exactly what this is by all team members. Only in this way can the ‘less powerful’ understand their ability to challenge even the most powerful so thinking, and the “most powerful” can realise the barriers to challenge and debate their authority creates and then to work to demonstrate that they are open to be challenged and to have their thoughts, actions and desires critiqued by the less powerful. There is no need for one big charismatic leader either. If appropriate in small teams such as we have in diving, it is more useful for different members to take the lead in different areas as befits their style, skills, knowledge and ability.
Clarity of communication. Once roles and power is understood it becomes easier within the team for open and honest communication pathways. Often the biggest difficulty here is not with the message sender, but with the receiver. If emotion or arrogance get in the way of listening “they can’t say that to me”, “don’t they know who /what I am” then problems occur and communication barriers are raised. This is why it’s easier to communicate by voice on contentious issues rather than email etc. the tone of challenge can be heard, the disengagement from listening can be seen and challenged. Anyway, there’s potential for an entire book on communication!
Clarity of culture and values. Culture comes form the Latin ‘to cultivate’ and a shared culture is vital for cohesion. Values are what makes up the team. Often in business I see values talked about in a very trite fashion. For example ‘honesty’ it’s a great value to have but, what does it mean in the context of this team and organisation? How is it applied? Measured? Upheld? If the team cannot use the values as a set of aspirational standards that guides their behaviour and actions them, those values have little true value! Herein lies another book…..
A balance of approaches in terms of thinking. I do like George Pattens quote “if everyone is thinking alike, then someone isn’t thinking” I like to ensure people that make up the teams that I am in can bring different thinking styles. I like someone strong in creative thinking, someone strong in operational thinking and someone strong in analytical or reflective thinking. That way we get information from the analyst from which ideas can be generated by the creative thinker, a practical “how can we make that work” approach from the operational thinker and an ability to refine and challenge the process development from all. No-one is 100% dominant in a style, but high performing people tend to have a dominant style, and a strong secondary, plus often a considerable weakness in a third. It doesn’t matter which one is dominant – there is often an assumption it’s better to be creative but as one myself I can tell you this is not true, we have difficulty sticking to a task if something new comes along.
Congruent motivational styles and directions. We’ve touched on this in a previous article but suffice it to say if you have three people all highly externally ego focussed then trouble lies ahead. Think about whether people are ego or task driven and whether that is internally or externally focussed by them. Imagine what this means they want by way of reward, recognition, feedback and satisfaction.

Interestingly some of the elements that high performing and cohesive teams don’t need are often things inexperienced team builders or leaders try and create.

They don’t need to like each other. They do however need to respect each other’s ability and desire to contribute to the team.
Social compatibility is of little relevance. I know people I get on well with socially that I’d hate to work with and vice versa.
The same motivational reasons for achieving the teams goal are not required. One might be ego motivated another task, what is important is that both can understand and appreciate the direction and intensity of the effort being put in by the team member.
To always be working with other team members. For some people their best contributions are made through individual focused effort. It is their output that the team needs not their companionship on a task or objective.
Lots of meetings… This is a real bugbear of mine. I hate lots of sit downs where information is exchanged, but no decisions made or actions decided upon. All this does is interrupt people. We have so many ways with modern technology of sharing information more efficiently without a meeting. Share the info then only meet if desired to argue out the course of action. A decision is something you have to make if you don’t have enough information! Hewlett Packard have for many years operated some amazingly successful global teams across multiple time zones and cultures.
Team oriented personalities. I am more independently minded than team focussed, but, when I see the reward for success being dependent on me being an effective team member or leader, I will be as valuable a team person as I can be. It’s all in the motivation!
Psychometric testing, Belbin team roles analysis etc. the degree of social compliance in psychometrics for me is unreal and the academic models of roles are often reductionist and trying to either over simplify or put people in boxes! Frankly roles will change based on what the team is focused on at that place on the path to its objective or purpose. Sometimes people will lead, at other times they need great followership skills. Make sure the box you put people in has an open lid!

Well done if as a diver you’ve got this far and wondered… Wtf has this got to do with diving? Well, to me it’s essential for safe and effective diving at both recreational and technical levels. We know problems occur in diving when team member step outside of the plans, but do we really consider why they do this. It’s easier to be annoyed and to berate them than it is to consider why they disconnected from the team. Perhaps they didn’t know in the first place what their role was and why it was so important to achieving the teams objective. Let’s also remember our first objective in diving is always come back alive and well from every dive. Perhaps they felt overwhelmed by more experienced divers who have become sloppy on planning or dive discipline and they didn’t feel they could speak up because they felt less powerful. I know this is a big issue for the “just culture” Gareth Lock is working so hard to establish in diving.

All I can do is encourage you if you dive within a team is to discuss the characteristics of a high performing cohesive team above. Answer for your team the questions that raises. Establish the clarity or purpose, roles and communication. Look at the leadership and followership roles. Get the whiteboard or flip chart out, it will make a huge difference. Perhaps you might identify the need to recruit a new member with desired and currently missing characteristics, perhaps it will make you realise there are issues in your team you want to address or even that your team is not working. These are all good results and will strengthen your dive team and make it safer and more effective. Observe teams you admire and benchmark them against the team elements above.

I’m up for answering questions or even helping teams work through these issues if desired, just pm me.

When all is said and done, have fun, dive safe.

thinking-man